Behind corrupt news, a corrupt system

Behind corrupt news, a corrupt system
Behind corrupt news, a corrupt system
Posted on 2013-11-06

Even the stars can be seen in Beijing skies at the moment. The wind raked through yesterday. The smog lifted.

Recently, as it seemed the smog would never clear, I surrendered and joined the ranks — I too bought an air purifier. After all, Doctor Zhong Nanshan (钟南山), the hero of SARS, said the smog in the north right now was more harmful than the epidemic a decade ago. You can’t just sit around, can you — breathing in those cancer causing particles and waiting for death to come?

At the moment, though, the smog in China’s media presents a more insoluble problem. As we approach China’s tenth Journalist’s Day on November 8, that smog is thicker than it ever has been. The foulness has a lot to do, of course, with the recent scandal surrounding New Express reporter Chen Yongzhou (陈永洲).

[1]

The Chen Yongzhou saga unfolded in three stages. Initially, the New Express supported its reporter following his cross-regional detention by Changsha police. It ran a bold headline, “Please Release Him,” on its front page. The next day, it ran another huge headline: “Again, Please Release Him.” These calls prompted a lot of attention, sympathy and support.

But the story took a dramatic turn after Chen Yongzhou was paraded out in handcuffs on China Central Television. He admitted to accepting money in exchange for a series of reports on the listed company Zoomlion.

The third stage was the counterattack against Changsha authorities and Zoomlion, in which critics questioned, for example, the right of the Changsha police to pursue the case across provincial borders.

There are indeed many problems with how the case has been handled. For instance: if the reporter is indeed suspected of accepting financial reward for his series of reports, then why is the charge her commercial libel and not bribery?

So I think it’s a fair point to say that greater scrutiny should be given to how the Chen Yongzhou case has been handled and what its legal basis really is.

Critics have also criticized the way Chen was paraded on CCTV. This, they say, is essentially “trial by media,” something we’ve seen on a number of so-called “legal programs” lately.

Actually, I don’t quite agree with the characterization of this as “trial by media.” Why? Because this term generally applies when we’re talking about independent media that make their own editorial judgements that impact the outcome of trials. In the case of CCTV, however, we are dealing instead with an official media outlet serving as a tool of power, for which reporting is, we should say, a “compulsory exercise.”

But the apparent revelations in the second phase of the Chen Yongzhou case — a television “confession” and rumors of high-level support from officials in Beijing — put many people in a tight spot. So this journalist we so vocally supported is in fact corrupt?

The All-China Journalists Association (ACJA), which at first showed rare solidarity with the reporter, quickly changed its tune, issuing a condemnation of the reporter’s conduct. The New Express could only capitulate and proclaim its guilt, its management suffering the consequences.

So much remains unclear, hidden by the smog. But we can say for certain that the credibility of China’s news media has plunged to a new low with this case. Media consumers must now think to themselves: if money is at work behind everything we read, where is the information we can trust?

[2]

When we look back to ten years ago, it’s incredible to think what relative prestige media had at that time. Around the time of the Sun Zhigang incident and the SARS epidemic, media were seen to be doing important work, both state-run media and commercially driven media. There was a sense that it was a golden age of investigative reporting.

It was also clear at that time that the government supported watchdog journalism, or what in Chinese is called “supervision by public opinion” (舆论监督). During Journalist’s Day in 2003, CCTV’s Accounts (讲述) program did a special segment in which it introduced a number of top journalists at the time, including Chai Jing (柴静), Qu Zhangying (曲长缨) and Ji Huiyan (冀惠彦) of CCTV, Zhu Yu (朱玉) of Xinhua News Agency, and such well-known investigative reporters as Wang Keqin (王克勤), Jiang Xue (江雪), Chen Feng (陈峰) and Zhao Shilong (赵世龙).

I recall that program with gratitude. Under the direction of anchor Zhang Xiaoqin (张小琴), who is now a teacher at Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism and Communications, these journalists shared wonderful stories about their work on a high-quality, professional program. It stimulated the excitement of a whole generation of aspiring journalists in China.

At the same time I really worry that that program might have been the pinnacle.

What many Chinese probably don’t know, in fact, is that a study done in the United States in 2003 showed already that Chinese journalism had its darker side. The disinterested results of that study indicated that among 66 countries where pay-for-play news was prevalent, the situation in China was the most severe.

The same year, I wrote a piece called, “Two Feudalisms in the Media We Must Be Mindful Of” (警惕传媒的双重“封建化”), in which I drew on the ideas of the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas and urged greater attention to the dangers of political and commercial manipulation of the media.

That piece, now a decade old, is as relevant today as ever.

These days, some of the journalists featured in the Accounts segment have retired. Others have left the profession. A few continue to hold on against the odds. The glories of those days have faded, and the rot we have seen spread through government and through business is now infecting the media as well.

The situation is more serious now than it ever has been. I don’t have reliable numbers available, but I would suggest that journalists who accept red envelopes as a matter of course now outnumber those who refuse.

[3]

In a piece called, “Rent Seeking in the Media is Unforgivable” (新闻寻租不可恕), Caixin editor-in-chief Hu Shuli (胡舒立) recently wrote about the chaos prevailing in China’s media. Hu’s piece drew a strong reaction from many journalists — a rare tide of dissenting opinion for a popular editor whose views are generally praised.

One of the chief objections to Hu’s piece was that by criticizing corruption in the media before the full facts of the Chen Yongzhou case have come to light — particularly given problems in how the case has been handled — Hu Shuli risked inviting further constraints on the already limited space enjoyed by journalists in China.

In fact, the two sides are on the same page. While it’s certainly true that we can’t glimpse the facts in the Chen Yongzhou case clearly as it stands right now, those journalists finding fault with Hu Shuli’s points must appreciate just how horrifying the situation really is in the media right now with respect to corruption.

As I was writing this piece, a number of people genuinely concerned about the future of journalism in China were busy canvassing opinions and exploring the possibility that news media might themselves prohibit such practices as pay-for-play and news extortion.

This should have happened long ago. But I have doubts about the effectiveness of this approach. First of all, checking abuses in the media cannot depend on moral restraint alone, just as the war on corruption has to be supported by legal mechanisms that at present don’t exist.

Secondly, there is the question of the relationship of media to power. Those media that are closer to power enjoy greater status. Some people have rightly pointed out that Chen Yongzhou’s newspaper, the New Express, is just a small-time player in the larger scheme of things. There are much more powerful “ghosts” of misconduct — and they are hiding inside the bigger media players [such as state-run media].

Third, rights and obligations must be balanced. If all we do is prohibit media from rent seeking, and we don’t ensure that their basic right to perform a monitoring role is protected by the law, then this type of supervision [including investigative reporting] can only weaken as a result. And right now, it’s position is already weak. If we say media supervision was in a position of strength ten years ago, we certainly cannot same the same today.

Fourth, right now new media are becoming more and more influential while traditional media are increasingly under financial strain. So if these problems, like accepting red envelopes and doing soft coverage, were a problem before, they will become even more so now. There are no exit mechanisms for news media, and we’ll certainly see some of them sacrificing their discretion on their way out.

Is it possible that news corruption is now lingering haze that we cannot dispel? In any case, it seems that this year we have little choice but to spend Journalist’s Day in a smoggy gloom.


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